Reading Reaction: Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow

I did it! I finally finished reading the mammoth biography, Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow.

It’s no secret by now that this 800+ page history book is the inspiration for the Broadway musical Hamilton. And — oh yeah — let me just mention right here that I have tickets to the show FOR THIS WEEKEND!

Once I actually got the tickets, I became firm in my resolution to read the book. I was not giving away my shot to learn more about the ten-dollar founding father without a father. And so, in early April, I dug in. First, I started with the audiobook — a 36 hour audiobook! — figuring I’d make slow but steady progress. And I did — but took a break to listen to a couple of other things, and then couldn’t get back into the flow.

Next, I turned to the Kindle edition, with a vague plan to treat it as a serial read — maybe I’d devote 10 – 15 minutes a day, and sooner or later I’d get through the book.

I had to finish it.

After all, there were a million things I hadn’t known.

But it turns out, I just couldn’t wait.

Pretty soon, I was reading like I was running out of time.

(Sorry. I’ll stop. Soon.)

But seriously, I’m glad I stuck with it. Alexander Hamilton is a brilliant, LONG, minutely detailed, and exhausting book — but emphasis on the brilliant.

Sadly, it also made me realize that while I thought I’d gotten a pretty decent education when it came to US history, apparently my teachers skipped quite a bit. I was fairly good on the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but this book showed me how little I knew about the early, post-war years of our country, the political factions and their intense rivalries and scorching hatreds, and the incredible animosity between Hamilton and, well, so many of the founding fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson and John Adams. I actually had only the slightest clue about the process of the creation of the Constitution and Hamilton’s role in it. The book is eye-opening in the extreme — and while said eyes did actually glaze over a bit, especially during the chapters on Hamilton’s economic plans, national debt, banking, etc — I learned a tremendous amount that was new to me and/or gave me new perspective on political discord and the origins of controversies that linger to this day.

The writing in Alexander Hamilton is quite wonderful and never dull, and I loved how, thanks to Hamilton’s compulsion toward the written word, so much of his own written record is incorporated into the book. It’s enlightening as well to see writings of George Washington and other historical figures, and particularly moving to see the written record of the love and affection between Hamilton and Eliza.

The behind the scenes look at Hamilton’s time on Washington’s staff during during the war, the maneuvering and struggling to get the Constitution ratified, the deeply bloodthirsty political battles — all are written so vividly, and with such great use of language from the historical record of correspondence, newspaper articles, and personal memoirs — that I often felt like I was in the room where it happened.

So how is it that an 800-page history book can bring a woman of the 21st century to tears?

Adieu, best of wives and best of women. Embrace all my darling children for me.

Easy. By the time the duel with Aaron Burr rolled around, I was ready to put the book in the freezer. (Yes, that’s a Joey Tribbiani reference. Always appropriate.) I didn’t want it to happen. Make it stop! It feels especially silly getting emotional over events that (a) are carved in stone and actually happened and (b) happened over 200 years ago. Kind of similar to how I felt reading Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel — I wanted to somehow have the story work out differently so that Anne Boleyn could keep her head, but damn history! It happens anyway, despite my feels.

There are places where Hamilton’s writing and Chernow’s analysis are startlingly relevant. I’ll just leave a few bits here:

After a protracted inquiry into Hamilton’s conduct as Treasury Secretary which resulted in a finding that all charges were baseless:

Nevertheless, it frustrated him that after this exhaustive investigation his opponents still rehashed the stale charges of misconduct. He had learned a lesson about propaganda in politics and mused wearily that “no character, however upright, is a match for constantly reiterated attacks, however false.” If a charge was made often enough, people assumed in the end “that a person so often accused cannot be entirely innocent.”

Hmmm. (But her emails…)

Or hey, how about how a President selects key advisers?

Washington had always shown great care and humility in soliciting the views of his cabinet. Adams, in contrast, often disregarded his cabinet and enlisted friends and family, especially Abigail, as trusted advisers.

Lest we think political discourse was more genteel and polite back in ye olden days…

On October 1, he sent a follow-up note to Adams, calling the allegations against him “a base, wicked, and cruel calumny, destitute even of a plausible pretext to excuse the folly or mask the depravity which must have dictated it.”

And then there’s this commentary on a document about Adams published by Hamilton:

“And, if true, surely it must be admitted that Mr. Adams is not fit to be president and his unfitness should be made known to the electors and the public. I conceive it a species of treason to conceal from the public his incapacity.”

I ended up highlighting a LOT as I was reading — either wonderfully phrased words from Hamilton himself or interesting bits about the customs of the day or insightful hints of how Hamilton and his friends, family, and foes thought, as gleaned from their journals and letters.

I may not be all that young, scrappy, or hungry, but I did end up devouring this book once I got into its rhythms. Again, it’s weird to say that a book about history, some of it quite well-known, can be suspenseful, yet that’s how it felt. The author manages to take the events and people of the historical record and make them feel alive, and writes with a flair for capturing the intensity and drama of Hamilton’s life, as well as the emotions and experiences of Eliza, Angelica (the Schuyler sisters!), and Hamilton’s closest friends and harshest critics and enemies.

Okay, and I did come away from the book despising Aaron Burr (the damn fool who shot him), because it seems clear that Hamilton went to the duel determined not to shoot Burr, but Burr went there planning to shoot to kill, if he could.

Beyond the dramatic ending, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about Alexander Hamilton, the man who grew up impoverished and of questionable birth, who grew into one of our nation’s finest thinkers and leaders. What an amazing reading experience!

Yes, just about everyone has fallen in love with the Hamilton musical. (I admit, I was very late to the party myself, but have been doing my best to catch up!) If you’re someone who mainly knows the story of Hamilton courtesy of Lin-Manuel Miranda, I encourage you to give this book a shot. It’s worth the effort, and gives a whole new meaning to all those amazing lyrics that we all quote at random times. (Right? Not just me? Thanks.)

It’ll probably be a while before I venture back to the non-fiction shelf to pick up a history book or political biography… but Alexander Hamilton has proved to me once again that reading non-fiction can be just as much of a thrill as reading a great novel, when done well and in the hands of a gifted writer.

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Save

Feral Hippos!

I don’t know why, but I’m ridiculously excited for the release of this new novella:

River of Teeth by Sarah Gailey releases tomorrow (5/23/2017), and is an alternative history with a truly weird premise:

In the early 20th Century, the United States government concocted a plan to import hippopotamuses into the marshlands of Louisiana to be bred and slaughtered as an alternative meat source. This is true.

Other true things about hippos: they are savage, they are fast, and their jaws can snap a man in two.

This was a terrible plan.

Contained within this volume is an 1890s America that might have been: a bayou overrun by feral hippos and mercenary hippo wranglers from around the globe. It is the story of Winslow Houndstooth and his crew. It is the story of their fortunes. It is the story of his revenge.

Sounds crazy, right?

I can’t wait for this to hit my Kindle tomorrow. Stay tuned for my reaction once I get to read the darn thing!

Blast from the past: Rediscovering a childhood favorite

Back in October, I wrote about an odd phenomenon:

For no reason I could think of, I was suddenly plagued by lines from a childhood poem, and I just could not get them out of my brain. But even worse, I couldn’t remember what book this poem came from, and despite my best efforts online, I was not able to track down the title or the author.

I’ve thought about it on and off ever since, and tried some rare book resource websites, but to no avail. And then, the absolutely amazing Mystereity Reviews (@mystereity) tweeted to let me know that she’d found it!

 

Following the link she provided, I saw the following:

There is a book called “Would You Put Your Money in a Sand Bank” by Harold Longman. It contains a poem about King Max and his taxes that ends with the people putting tacks in Max. Could this be what you’re looking for? The rest of the book is puns and riddles and other poems. – See more at: http://www.whatsthatbook.com/index.php?xq=21020#sthash.IckfiWhT.dpuf
Yes! Yes! A thousand times yes! That’s definitely the poem I wanted! So I went on Amazon and found a used copy, placed my order, and here’s what arrived today:

 

Published in 1968, Would You Put Your Money in a Sand Bank? is a book of puns and wordplay. And there, on page 43, is my long-lost poem! What’s funny is that I don’t recognize anything else about this book — so perhaps just this one poem appeared in an early-reading anthology or something similar. Maybe? Also odd is the fact that I must have read it about a zillion times, and here we are decades later and I still remember big pieces of it by heart — but when I asked my sister if she remembered the poem we always liked to say out loud about a king named Max and all of his taxes, she hadn’t the foggiest notion was I was talking about.

In any case, this just goes to prove that it’s the little things in life that count, because I’m giddy with joy over being reunited with Max’s Taxes. And since I couldn’t find this in print or online anywhere other than in a very old book, I’m going to reprint the entire poem here, for the sake of posterity. I hope you like it!

 

A wicked King named Max
Decreed an income tax.
He put a notice on the wall,
And stuck it up with tacks.

The people cried, “We can’t abide
Either Max or tax!
The outcome is, our income
Won’t even buy us snacks!

“A plague on Max’s taxes!
They’re anything but fair!
He taxes both our income
And our patience , we declare!”

 

So up they rose upon their toes
And seized all Max’s tacks…
Went marching to the palace
And stuck the tacks in Max.

 

Fun, right? I wish I still had learning-to-read kids in my house to share this with… but maybe I’ll go torture my 14-year-old by reading it to him anyway.

And once again, THANK YOU to Mystereity Reviews!

Save

Rereading and rethinking

I do love to re-read my favorite books. Don’t we all?

But have you ever re-read a book you didn’t love the first time around?

In thinking about it, it’s hard to come up with reasons to do so. After all, if I didn’t think it was great, why would I want to revisit it?

That’s been my take on the issue up to now. The only reasons I can think of to reread a book that wasn’t a favorite would be:

  • for a book group or discussion
  • after reading someone else’s take on the book and realizing I might have missed something
  • when there’s a new TV or movie adaptation coming out and generating a lot of buzz
  • wanting to give a favorite author another shot
  • trying the book in a different medium

My most recent experience with re-reading books that weren’t huge hits the first time around have to do with the last two bullet points on my list.

The author in question was Gail Carriger. I adored her Parasol Protectorate series — but found that two books in subsequent series, Espionage & Etiquette and Prudence, just didn’t appeal to me as much. (Want proof? Check out my lukewarm reviews!)

But recently, Gail Carriger released a couple of shorter fictions that I wanted to read (see my write-up, here), and those stories pulled me right back into her steampunk/supernatural world. What’s more, I was dying to stay in that world. And that made me think — had I really given those other books a proper chance?

I’ve become more and more convinced that reading doesn’t happen in a vacuum. What sort of mood was I in when I read a particular book? Where was I? What else was going on in my life? Maybe, in some circumstances, the main reason I didn’t take to a particular book has more to do with my own situation. In other words: It’s not you, it’s me.

(Not always, of course. Some books are just not good, and there’s no prettying it up.)

So, in the case of the Gail Carriger books, I decided to try again. This time, I thought I’d go with audiobooks.

Amazing decision.

I started listening to book 1 in the Finishing School series, Etiquette and Espionage, and absolutely could not stop. I loved the first book, and continued on straight through until I’d listened to all four books. (For why I loved them, see this post.) In fact, I was so in love with listening to this series that I was in dire need of a Carriger fix to feed my addiction once I’d finished, so I hunted down the audiobook of Prudence pretty much the second after finishing Manners & Mutiny.

Oh, my parasol. LOVED it. How could I love Prudence so much when I didn’t love it when I read it the first time? For me, there’s no getting around the fact that the amazing audiobook narrator, Moira Quirk, is a big factor. She does such a great job of capturing the different voices, the snippy/snarky banter, the nuances of aristocratic Victorian society — certain of her voices, in particular, leave me rolling on the floor in helpless laughter.

But would I love the printed books too? Probably. It could just be a mood thing, as I mentioned earlier. For whatever reason, my mindframe was such that I didn’t enjoy the books when I first read them — but right now? I’m having a ball. I’m totally in the mood for this level of silliness, combined with an underpinning of true emotions and friendship (and in the case of book #2, Imprudence, which I’m listening to now, some super sexy flirtation doesn’t hurt a bit).

Anyway, all this has made me wonder: How common is it to have strongly different opinions about the same books?

I do think it’s fairly common to re-read a book we remember loving, and find it a let down when rereading years later. But how about the opposite?

Have you ever felt “meh” (or worse) about a book, and then felt really differently about it when you read it again? And further, do you ever re-read books that you didn’t love the first time you read them?

I’d love to hear about other people’s experiences! Please share your thoughts.

Save

Five reasons to read the Finishing School series by Gail Carriger

finishing-school-collage

MADEMOISELLE GERALDINE’S FINISHING ACADEMY FOR YOUNG LADIES OF QUALITY was established 1820 as an institution of finer learning, higher manners, and social graces for young women who wish to present their best selves to society. Our young women learn modern languages, dance, music, household management, etiquette, and finishing from the finest instructors on land or in aether. And each morning, after breakfast, every student recites, with religious solemnity, the school motto, ut acerbus terminus: TO THE BITTER END.

Our students don’t just learn to curtsy—they learn to finish—both the right kind and the wrong kind of finishing. But please note that our alumni are not simply assassins. A graduate of Mademoiselle Geraldine’s would never complete an engagement in a way that was messy, unbecoming of a lady, or attracting of attention. They are discrete, they are subtle: they are ladies of quality.

(from the Finishing School website, http://finishingschoolbooks.com/the-academy)

Want to have a heap of fun? Step one: Get your hands on Etiquette & Espionage. Step two: Keep reading until you’ve read all four book in the series.

And better yet: Get the audiobooks! These books deserve a nice, relaxed listen.

I read Etiquette & Espionage years ago, when it first came out (review), and had a deliciously lovely time with it. So why did I stop? I’m not exactly sure, except (a) my dreaded aversion to series-reading raised its ugly head and caused me a fatal lack of interest by the time book #2 was released, and (b) somehow in the interim, I’d convinced myself that the series had too juvenile a tone to appeal to me in the long run.

Wrong on both counts. What was I thinking?

All these years, I’ve managed to believe that I wouldn’t enjoy the Finishing School series, and as a result, I ended up depriving myself — until now! — of the pleasure of reading these super silly yet totally wonderful books.

Mea culpa. Mea maxima culpa.

So, if any of you either haven’t heard of the series, or heard of the books but aren’t convinced that you should give them a try, here are five reasons why they need to be at the top of your MUST READ or MUST LISTEN lists, ASAP.

1) Fantastic world-building: The world of the Finishing School is full of Victorian manners, proper English ladies and gentlemen, lots of tea, and all sorts of supernatural beings — who are an accepted and honored part of society, thank you very much. Vampires, werewolves, and ghosts exist, mingle with humans, and are received in the finest of homes. A steampunk sensibility is in the forefront throughout, so expect lots of gears, dirigibles, mechanical servants and soldiers, valves, frequensors, and the like.

2) Strong female characters: The finishing school of the series title is a floating school housed in a dirigible, in which “young ladies of quality” become finished — in the dangerous arts of espionage, artifice, and assassination, among other important subjects. The most talented of the girls may have careers ahead of them as intelligencers, or may be destined to marriage to high ranking gentlemen so they can work their wiles behind the scenes. In any case, the young women we meet have backbones and brains, are handy with all manner of weaponry (I love Sophronia’s bladed fan), and can out-think any and all bad guys on a moments’ notice. Main character Sophronia and her best friends Dimity, Agatha, and Sidheag aren’t afraid to fight, scheme, flirt, and lie in order to protect each other and the people they care about. What’s more, Sophronia especially doesn’t particularly care about the rules of society, and is determined to set her own course and grab her own destiny, no matter whether others want to take her choices away.

3) Sense of humor: From the smallest of touches to the sublimely ridiculous, Gail Carriger’s writing has just enough arch humor to make every moment fun without crossing the line into dumb jokes. The conversations and descriptions all add to the overall sense of never taking things seriously, broken only when there are moments of true sorrow or tragedy, which the author is equally good at conveying. For snippets of the awesome writing and dialogue, check out some of my Thursday Quotables selections — here and here,

4) Terrific narrator: This is why I so highly recommend the audiobooks. The narrator is amazing! Moira Quirk captures the wickedly funny nature of the dialogue through her sharp-edged delivery, phrasing, and rhythms. She lends distinct voices to Sophronia and her friends, as well as to the oh-so-amusing vampire Professor Braithwope and the countless other unique characters, capturing the class differences with ease… and making me laugh out loud on a regular basis. (Note to self: Stop listening to funny  audiobooks in public.)

5) Visits from familiar friends: Prior to writing the Finishing School books, Gail Carriger had already collected a devoted following of her Parasol Protectorate series (which I adore). Although Finishing School is set approximately 25 years before the start of Soulless, book #1 in the Parasol Proctorate, there are quite a few familiar characters who appear in both series. Conveniently, since we’re talking about supernatural beings, there’s no reason why everyone’s favorite vampire, Lord Akeldama, can’t be a major player in Sophronia’s world too — looking as fashionable and fabulous as always, of course. Some of the others making appearances, large or small, in the Finishing School books are Sidheag Maccon and Genevieve Lefoux, plus a few others we see more or less in the shadows, going unnamed, but awfully familiar, like an inscrutable butler and a sandy-haired Beta werewolf.

Convinced yet?

In each book, the storyline builds on itself, adding to our knowledge of the characters’ inner lives and personal strengths, and then showing them in action as they team up to stop the bad guys and pretty much save the world, or at least, the British Empire. As this series is YA-targeted, the main steam in the story comes from the boiler rooms, not from sexytimes — if you’re looking for adult sexual encounters, check out the Parasol Protectorate books. Still, the Finishing School books contain some truly spectacular romantic moments, a love triangle that’s more than your typical YA three-sided geometry, and a crossing of class and race lines that make Sophronia a woman far ahead of her own time.

But let’s not get too serious about all this. The Finishing School books are good, silly, fun  — amazing characters, dynamic plot, loads of steampunk detailing, and dramatic, hair-raising escapes and adventures.

Please, please, please go check this series out! You’ll thank me. I promise.

Save

Save

Let us now praise gorgeous books

My photos simply won’t do this book justice, but I still have to share. I was so excited to get this delivered this week:

kindred-cover

It’s a brand new release — a graphic novel adaptation of the late, great Octavia Butler’s masterpiece Kindred.

A few more peeks:

img_4335

img_4334

img_4333

I hope to start reading this graphic novel this week. Kindred is an amazing book — if you haven’t read the original novel, do it now!! I can’t wait to see if the power and intensity of the book translate well into graphic novel format.

I’ll let you know!

All the books I meant to read – 2016 edition

goodbye-2016

2016.

Where did you go? You just whizzed on by, and I haven’t gotten to so many things I thought I’d do this year.

And by “things I thought I’d do”, I mean “books I thought I’d read”.

I thought I’d gotten much better about not buying books unless I’m sure I’ll read them… and yet, it’s somewhat embarrassing to look back at all the new books I bought this past year that I still haven’t cracked open.

Anyone who happens to read my “Monday Check-in” posts might be familiar with my “Fresh Catch” section, where I highlight the new books that came my way each week. When I look back at all of the Fresh Catch books from 2016, it’s pretty obvious that I am just not keeping up with my purchases!

But, hey. I WILL read these books. Eventually. I bought them because I wanted to read them, and I still do. More hours in a day, that’s what I need! Meanwhile, I thought I’d gather up all those Fresh Catch books from the year (excluding library books, ARCs, Kindle books, and books I picked up for $1 at the big library sale), and put together a visual reminder of all of those books I was so excited to get.

Here’s a salute to my unread books of 2016!

Save

Save

Help! I’ve got a children’s book earworm, and I don’t know what it’s from!

woman-1172721_1920Lend a reader a hand, won’t you?

Since yesterday, I’ve had lines from a children’s book stuck in my head. Does this count as an earworm, or does that only refer to music? Whatever — I’m saying it counts.

So… my earworm.

I know this is from something my sister and I used to read a lot as kids. I think it’s from a children’s book, but it could also just be from a short piece within a collection. I’ve tried Googling, and I’ve come up with absolutely nothing.

Here’s what I remember — it’s a rhyming story set in a kingdom with a really unfair ruler. And it has something to do with taxes. And I think someone named Max.

(I know, taxes sounds like a really weird topic for a kids’ book, but hey, I didn’t write the thing!)

The lines I know (or kind of know):

A plague on Max’s taxes! They are anything but fair! He taxes both our income and our patience, we declare.

And

So up they rose upon their toes and [something about sneaking into the palace].

And in the end,

They stuck their tacks in Max!

Am I completely crazy?

If you have any idea what this could be, please let me know! You’ll have my eternal gratitude!

Burning Questions: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

flame banner

In which I ask the questions that keep me up at night…

I’ve read Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire at least 4 or 5 times, and now I’m listening to the audiobook. It’s my first time revisiting HP4 in a few years, and here’s what’s on my mind and making me lose sleep:

WHY IS HARRY REQUIRED TO COMPETE IN THE TRIWIZARD TOURNAMENT???

Apparently, the rules state that if your name comes out of the goblet, you must compete. Dumbledore says that Harry doesn’t have a choice, because it’s a binding magical contract.

Wait a sec — a magical contract?

Doesn’t a contract imply consent? You have to sign your name to a contract in order for it to be binding. You certainly have to enter into it knowingly and willingly.

The noun contract is defined as a written or spoken agreement, especially one concerning employment, sales, or tenancy, that is intended to be enforceable by law.

So if Harry’s name was submitted by someone else, shouldn’t the implied contract be null and void? After all, he didn’t put his name in the goblet. He did not agree. (He’s also underage, so he doesn’t meet the tournament requirements.) But really, most importantly, he was not a party to the terms and conditions.

What would happen if he refused to compete, or if Dumbledore refused to let him? Would he die? Would he be cursed? Would his hair fall out? What’s the consequence?

I NEED TO KNOW.

It’s easy, upon first read, to skim the fine print in order to get on with the story — and it’s a damned fine story. And sure, if Harry weren’t required to compete, then there wouldn’t be any plot to the book. (Imagine what a great 4th year Harry might have had if he’d just been sitting in the stands as a spectator, alongside Ron and Hermione.)

So why doesn’t Dumbledore find a way to get Harry out of the tournament, suspecting as he does that someone entered Harry in order to do him harm? Why is everyone willing to just accept the idea of a binding magical contract?

Seriously. I really want to know what would have happened if Harry just said no.

Anyone else losing sleep over this?

Just me?

Check out the cover of Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs!

I was so excited to see this on Facebook while I was away on vacation! As a big fan of the Mercy Thompson series by Patricia Briggs, it makes me soooo happy to ponder the glories of this cover:

silence_fallen_layout.indd

 

Silence Fallen is book #10 in the series. The expected publication date is March 7, 2017… which can’t possibly get here soon enough!

Synopsis:

In the #1 New York Times bestselling Mercy Thompson novels, the coyote shapeshifter has found her voice in the werewolf pack. But when Mercy’s bond with the pack—and her mate—is broken, she’ll learn what it truly means to be alone…

Attacked and abducted in her home territory, Mercy finds herself in the clutches of the most powerful vampire in the world, taken as a weapon to use against alpha werewolf Adam and the ruler of the Tri-Cities vampires. In coyote form, Mercy escapes—only to find herself without money, without clothing, and alone in the heart of Europe…

Unable to contact Adam and the rest of the pack, Mercy has allies to find and enemies to fight, and she needs to figure out which is which. Ancient powers stir, and Mercy must be her agile best to avoid causing a war between vampires and werewolves, and between werewolves and werewolves. And in the heart of the ancient city of Prague, old ghosts rise…

Did you get chills? I got chills. I’m so scared for Mercy! This sounds amazing. Can’t wait!

Find Silence Fallen at:

Goodreads
Amazon
Barnes & Noble

And PS – If you haven’t read any of the Mercy books, start with Moon Called and then keep going! Such an amazing series.